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Afghans Skeptic of US-Taliban Deal     02/28 06:27

   KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- Many Afghans view Saturday's expected signing of 
a U.S.-Taliban peace deal with a heavy dose of well-earned skepticism. They've 
spent decades living in a country at war --- some their whole lives --- and 
wonder if they can ever reach a state of peace.

   The deal is meant to set the stage for a U.S. troop withdrawal and to usher 
in talks among Afghans on both sides of the conflict about their country's 
future. There's been bitter squabbling among political leaders, concern of a 
temporary truce being undermined, and the challenge of uniting a fractured 
country remains daunting.

   Arash, an Afghan policeman in the capital of Kabul, was 7 years old when a 
U.S.-led military coalition ousted the Taliban government in 2001. The U.S. was 
retaliating for the Taliban harboring Osama Bin Laden while he masterminded the 
Sept. 11 terror attacks.

   "We've had no escape from war," said Arash, who only gave his first name 
because he had not received permission from his superiors to speak to 
reporters. 

   He said he and his colleagues want peace, but that political leaders "are 
only thirsty for power, not for peace." He said the Taliban are fellow Afghans 
and that "we should have peace with them."

   Afghanistan's economy has been wracked by 18 years of fighting, despite 
billions of dollars spent on nation building. Some 55% live in poverty, or less 
than $1 a day, up from 34% in 2012.

   On a recent chilly Kabul morning, dozens of laborers waited to be picked up 
for a day's work. Dressed in tattered paint-splattered clothes, some carrying 
their own paintbrushes, they squatted on the sidewalk in the heart of the 
capital, where new high-rise buildings butt up against small dingy shops.

   "Everyone is looking for work. There are thousands and thousands like us all 
over the city," said Qatradullah, who like many Afghans goes by just one name. 
He said he favors the peace deal and hopes it will bring jobs, but that 
government corruption has been crippling. He said the vast sums pumped into 
Afghanistan have "gone into the pockets of our leaders."

   Transparency International last year ranked Afghanistan 173rd of 180 
countries it monitors, scoring it 16 out of 100.

   President Donald Trump has been critical of Washington's spending in 
Afghanistan. 

   "We're really serving, not as a military force, as we are a police force," 
Trump said earlier this week while on a visit to India. "They have to police 
their own country."

   Under the peace plan, 13,000 U.S. troops will initially draw down to 8,600, 
Trump said. Much of the plan remains vague, except to say American troops will 
withdraw and that the Taliban promise not to let extremists use the country as 
a staging ground for attacking the U.S. or its allies.

   Taliban leaders told The Associated Press that if everything goes according 
to plan, all U.S. soldiers would be out of Afghanistan in 14 months. Washington 
has not confirmed such a timeline.

   The agreement also stipulates the release of 5,000 Taliban from Afghan-run 
jails, but it's not clear if the government will agree to that.

   The Taliban and representatives from Kabul, including the government, are to 
sit together within 10 to 15 days of Saturday's signing. They'll try to 
negotiate the framework of a post-war Afghanistan. Issues on the table include 
a more permanent cease-fire and the rights of women and minorities.

   Negotiators will try to figure out how to re-integrate tens of thousands of 
Taliban insurgents and thousands more militiamen loyal to warlords in Kabul, 
who have grown powerful and wealthy during 18 years.

   Shepherding the sides toward intra-Afghan negotiations has been one of the 
biggest headaches for U.S. negotiators, according to Afghans familiar with the 
process. 

   It's been complicated by President Ashraf Ghani's insistence to hold an 
election last September. He wanted to give himself a mandate heading into 
negotiations with the Taliban. 

   But critics say a divisive election has only fragmented the political 
landscape in Kabul. The country's election commission declared Ghani the winner 
earlier this month, despite charges of irregularities from his opponents and 
from the elections complaints commission

   U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday pleaded for Kabul to come up 
with a "fully representative" team for talks with the Taliban.

   Hamid Gailani, an Afghan negotiator in preliminary talks, said that "the 
biggest challenge that I see is the political turmoil (in Kabul), and that 
needs to be resolved."

   He called on the fractious leadership to think of the greater good and not 
to miss a rare window of opportunity. "God forbid, if we lose this opportunity, 
then it is gone forever," he said.

   In 2001, many Taliban fighters returned to their communities after their 
government collapsed. But the new administration in Kabul sought revenge, often 
using the U.S.-led coalition to exact it, demanding money from former Taliban 
or threatening to hand them to U.S. forces. 

   That drove thousands of fighters to once again take up arms and head back 
into the mountains, according to former Taliban members and analysts explaining 
their group's resurgence.

   The Taliban now control or hold sway over half the country, and are at their 
most powerful since the U.S. invasion.

   Only one militant group ever signed a peace agreement with Ghani's 
government. The group's leader, warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, said many of his 
fighters faced harassment, intimidation and even prison when they attempted to 
re-integrate. 

   "We hope this failed experience is not be repeated with the Taliban," 
Hekmatyar he said in an interview this week.

   At an Afghan National Army post in the capital, the AP spoke with two 
soldiers, including one who served for 14 years. They welcomed a peace deal 
with the Taliban. Neither wanted to give their name as they gestured to their 
torn uniforms and disintegrating army boots, fearing retribution from their 
commanding officers if they spoke too freely.

   One soldier said he hadn't received his salary, and the other said he 
received only half a month's salary. 

   "We'll be happy to have the Taliban serving with us, but if the government 
isn't paying us, how can they pay them?" he said.

   "Maybe the Taliban should think twice before wanting to join the army."


(KR)

 
 
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